Driving through rural VA this past weekend, I punched open my iPhone camera to try to catch some amazing color notations. The snow was laying lightly atop an awakening earth. Before my eyes, was a transition going on from winter palette in the very dust of the earth. There were peeks of verdancy under the cold cover, and it was so beautiful! Clumps of slight but sure winsomeness was hinted also in the thin groupings of branches set against darker woods. I was stunned. I hoped the many shots I took might catch even a little glimpse of what was whizzing past my retina, what was affecting my heart!
I am reminded of what the scientist Edwin Land used to say about the retina as an incredible receptor. What the human eye could perceive in 1/3 of a second, he said, would take a super computer 100 years to do! Doubtless technology has improved that comparison, but the human eye’s incredible ability remains unmatched. Alas, the translation of color to pixels in my iPhone could not replicate the wonder I had seen. Later that day, I sat with my near 8 year old grandson, re-telling the experience while showing him several of my photos. He politely tolerated my enthusiasm and looked but could not see what I was exclaiming about. How can I somehow replicate what I experienced there in a way that can be seen? This is maybe the task of my years now, and I ache for the skill to do it.
Francis of Assisi spoke of nature being a conduit of much greater reality; that nature bespoke the glory of its Creator; that such beatific embodiment in very physical things was indicator of sure things beyond.
Albrecht Durer, the German engraver of the 14th century spent time, thought, and practice trying to understand and to communicate a theory for what makes beauty. He called it a search for the wondrous, “for it is great art that in crude, rustic things can show real power…and this gift is wondrous” (Panofsky p. 122).
Jonathan Edwards, the early American theologian, “was obsessed” with the beauty of God. Edwards said that beauty was an analog, or a sign post of God’s primary essence; “the most accessible manifestation of goodness” (writes Gerald McDermott in a new Theology of Jonathan Edwards).
All I know is that I saw some incredible flashes of beauty in the Virginia hills. Like apparitions, they do not show up on my camera screen. I hunger to translate them so others can taste and see it too.